Tuesday, March 5, 2024 Mar 5, 2024
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Seeing the world through the eyes of a sheltie
By Jo Brans |

My husband says there are three things no one wants to hear about: other people’s dreams, other people’s children, and other people’s pets. He has a point. The standard dream recital, for instance (“Then my mother appeared over my head in a sort of dark blob, only it wasn’t really my mother, you know, it was Imogene”) can make anyone whimper for mercy. One thing helps: having a story to tell back. When the dark blob in your own dream is crowding up behind your teeth, it’s amazing how much interest you may suddenly feel-or feign-in the other person’s dream.

Take pets, for instance. Take, specifically, dogs. I learned when I was a child that dogs were fine, but they were supposed to stay outside, certainly not in the bed with me under my mother’s best blanket. I remember how, later, I used to laugh at people who were silly about their dogs. When John Steinbeck, the wise old radical, wrote his last book, Travels with Charley, and Charley turned out to be a poodle, I was disgusted. Never mind that Steinbeck made a point of saying that Charley was a large, unclipped poodle of noble mien. The writer who’d brought the Okies west in The Grapes of Wrath now traveling across America with a dog? It was, I decided, a pathetic decline. I skimmed the book, skipping the Charley parts.

That was B.E. (Before Emily). If Steinbeck and I were to meet today, I’d happily hear about Charley if he’d let me tell about Emily, and I suspect he would. Emily is our 6-year-old Shetland sheepdog, sometimes called a sheltie or a miniature collie or by the children, invariably, “Little Lassie.” Really, there’s nothing miniature about Emily; she’s exactly the size she ought to be, a large heart in a small body.

Back in Dallas, Emily was always a bonus pleasure in a full life, a bouncy little creature who greeted me with tail-wagging licks and cheerful yips when I came home, and bade me goodbye with remonstrative nips on the ankle. Here in New York over the past eight months, she has become much more: my prime companion, the most constant presence available to me. Students, friends and colleagues left behind, one child off at school and the other in Texas, my husband working 14-hour days in a new job, I sit at home in a small apartment stringing out words on a machine. Because of Emily’s adaptability to my moods, it would be easy to feel sorry for myself in her company. It’s no wonder that in her new book, Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie portrays self-pity as an invisible dog, “a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels.”

But in truth, Emily diverts me from myself. As I think and write, I watch her idly. She has a lot to do. The cat must be chased to the top of the piano and vigilantly kept there. At a step in the hall, Emily barks and listens at the door. She washes her paws carefully, a lesson she has learned from the cat, then cleans the remnants of breakfast and polishes her bowl. She takes a long nap, uttering little whistles, sighs and grunts. I can tell she dreams, but I don’t tell her my dreams, so she doesn’t tell me hers.

At last she wakes, comes over, puts one white paw on my knee, and fixes me with an eager eye. Impossible to ignore, impossible to look away. Because of her I must leave my machine and my books and my cup of coffee and go down into the streets of the city. My travels through Manhattan have been in large part travels with Emily.

To paraphrase Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of travel: first-class and travel with dogs. Nevertheless, I take her with me everywhere I can, which I soon realize is almost everywhere. New Yorkers are nuts about dogs, and Emily and her kind are surprisingly welcome all over town. The ASPCA estimates that there are more than 500,000 dogs in New York. I don’t mean strays. I have heard rumors of strays in the city, but I’ve never seen a single one myself. I mean cared-for dogs like Emily, belonging to people in all walks of life and all economic brackets. A city magazine recently described a homeless man who lives in Central Park who refuses to go into a city shelter even on cold nights because he can’t take Suzanne, his schipperke mix, with him. He paid $8.50 to license Suzanne with the ASPCA so that she would have playmates among the snobbish East Side dogs in the park. No doubt there are those who would criticize him for that, but I understand it perfectly.

BUT IT’S A dog’s life going anywhere with Emily. In the first place, she’s such a pig. We have this constant argument over food. Emily discovered early on that East Side, West Side, all around the town, the streets of New York are one enormous dog deli. As we saunter down the width of Broadway, Em drags on her leash to gnaw at the stepped-on shreds of pizza cheese on the sidewalk, dashes ahead to scoop up the delectable goo on a David’s Cookies package and nearly strangles herself with an abrupt stop when she spots an abandoned piece of fried chicken or half a candy bar.

“No, Emily, cut it out!” I shriek at her. Indifferent New York turns to stare. I could hit a man over the head with a lead pipe and no one would want to get involved, but raise your voice to a dog and it’s another story. “Don’t eat that, you filthy mutt.” She cocks her ears. The crowd turns ugly.

“Bad! Bad, nasty stuff!” I say, shaking my head fiercely, acting as if she’s eaten the arm off a small child. She clearly thinks that I’ve lost my mind. “After all,” she seems to be saying, “the stuff is just there. If I don’t eat it, someone else will. I’m only human, you know.” Dogs are great sophists.

I march her away indignantly, tugging a bit, only to look around and see the end of a French roll going down her throat. Now people hiss at me when they see me with my fist crammed into her mouth, trying to drag out the stale piece of bread. Emily licks her chops and smiles. She’s won again.

Then there’s a related problem that I will try to discuss as delicately as I can, but which, believe me, at about midnight on a snowy night can be a real problem. For Emily’s bathroom routine to proceed smoothly, one must find a bit of grass. Block after icy block we have trudged, looking for grass. The merest blade of grass would do, but grass there must be. Unthinkable the city sidewalk, Emily let us know. She would look up pathetically from time to time as if to say, “I don’t demand much, but even in a cultural wasteland, one must maintain some standards.”

She slowly learned to compromise about the grass, and we learned other things together-to avoid the neighborhood hardware store, for example, because they keep cats, and to cultivate the branch library, where they love her. At the library, while I browse, she entertains her court, looking pleasant and condescending when one child after another comes up and says, “Look, Mama, it’s a little Lassie!” And the librarian was very nice about it the day Emily threw up under the table.

Our worst problem in our travels is that Emily is a bigot. Benign as she looks, she is not friendly to small children, strange men in caps and other dogs, especially big dogs. She’s nice enough to Chihuahuas and little dogs she could whip, but she denies shepherds and Weimaraners the right to coexist on the planet. Utterly unconscious of the realities of size, she walks up to them truculently with a twitch of the ears, a curl of the lip and a bristle just under the surface of her small furry body. I have spoken to her about these self-destructive tendencies, but it never helps.

Of course, I try to compensate. When we come toward a big dog, a block away I grip Em’s leash close to her collar. At a half block I smile placatingly and begin blathering, “My dog is not friendly, my dog is not friendly,” to discourage the sniffing encounters that most dog owners seem to relish. A woman with a huge collie that looked like the Before to Emily’s After (or vice versa) scolded me. “You’re teaching her to be unfriendly, holding her like that. Let her go. They’ll work it out,” she said.

“Really? Do you think so?” I asked, dangling the leash, wanting it to be that simple.

“Sure,” the woman said. “Come on, let her go. See what happens.” What happened was that Emily chased her dog halfway to Macy’s.

THE FIRST TIME I saw a dog at Bloom-ingdale’s, I did a double take. Leaning on the Clinique counter, dubiously rubbing Bilious Bronze blush on the back of my hand, I caught a large, frowzy shape out of the corner of my eye. Automatically I moved over, thinking that here was someone who needed help more than I did. Then I turned around, straight into the muzzle of a very large, elegant Afghan hound. She tossed her long platinum bob, looked down her thin nose and sniffed disdainfully.

I dropped the blush guiltily, embarrassed for my taste. “Do you have something a little less, uh, bilious?” I asked the cosmetics lady. “This is a little plebeian.” The Afghan moved off, bored, followed by a Beautiful Person.

“Bilious is in this season, madam,” the cosmetician answered, turning away with a restless sigh. I felt that she and the Afghan were of a mind about me.

PERHAPS EMILY IS not a dog at all, but one of what John Cheever used to call “formerly dorgs,” a term, his daughter Susan says in Home Before Dark, “he had invented to explain the fact that they were really people temporarily trapped in hairy, rotund bodies.” As I see it, Emily hovers on the cusp between canine and human. As No. 42-92-43, she has her own identification card at the Animal Medical Center, a 12-story animal hospital where she has made several visits to an optha-mologist. But together she and I have visited The Dog Museum of America at 51 Madison Avenue, where her interest in the heredity of the canine race seemed to me markedly forced.

Cheever observed those who were “formerly dorgs” closely. One old favorite, Cassie, became so human to Cheever-he described her as a dowager countess with all the airs of a stingy aristocrat-that he served as her secretary when she wished to drop her son Zeke a note.

I set strict limits on my foolishness about my dog. Not yet have I begun to help Emily with her correspondence, as Cheever did with his dog, nor have I begun to wear Emily, as some of the women of New York wear their dogs. We’d been in town just a few weeks when the Times came out in August with a quarter-page story on how the fashionable dog should be worn. “Though fashion in general is stressing the oversized look,” the piece read, “dogs are one accessory in which the small-to-medium versions are the most popular.”

There were pictures of women who were literally putting on the dog. A Marlene Dietrich type (the woman, not the dog), dressed in military cap, trousers and dark glasses wore a tiny schnauzer in the big patch pocket of her jacket. A sultry, long-haired beauty (the dog, not the woman) peered out of a snazzy striped bag. A dumpy blonde on a bicycle carried a somewhat dumpy poodle papoose-style in a straw basket on her back.

I looked at Emily with a wild surmise- much cheaper than buying a fall outfit, after all-and hefted her experimentally a couple of times. At 19 pounds, however, she would obviously be a major fashion mistake.

Nevertheless, I have come to understand how these women-and the men like them- feel. The other day I saw a nicely dressed older woman carrying a small dog on her shoulder. Both the dog and the woman looked quite content.

“Your dog is so docile,” I said. “Does he always ride like that?”

“Oh, yes. Where I go,” the woman said, “Muffy goes. He only weighs 5 pounds, so he’s never a problem. We just came back from the dentist.”

“Yours or his?”

“Mine,” she smiled. “His was yesterday. Pulled eight teeth.”

I never knew whose eight teeth got pulled, but I’m not sure it matters. A shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to ride on. What we are talking about here is loneliness. In the enormous city that is the modern world, a small dog can sometimes fill the big gap.

I like Emily because she is herself, andbecause she is there, and because she likesme. But, no, I’m not silly about her. No wayin the world would I subject her to the hairribbons, the rhinestone collars or the littletweed jackets with velvet trim that the dogsof New York wear. Not for a minute wouldI submit Emily to the puppy kindergarten,doggie play groups, and canine counselingthat are de rigueur among Manhattan’s dogelite. Devoted as I am to her, I am still arestrained and sensible dog owner, and Emily, I am happy to say, is a dog who knowsher place. And I can tell you where it is-right up here in the bed with me.

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